Cultural heritage at risk: Iraq

The Iraq National Museum in Baghdad, Iraq, was looted in 2003 but has since reopened. A statue of Nabu, the 8th century BC Assyrian god of wisdom, stands before the building. (Photo: David Stanley, CC BY 2.0)

The Iraq National Museum in Baghdad was looted in 2003 but has since reopened (photo: David Stanley, CC BY 2.0)

The region of present day Iraq is the birthplace of numerous prehistoric and historic civilizations. Located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Mesopotamia is part of the Fertile Crescent and known as the Cradle of Civilization where some of the world’s first cities arose. More than 10,000 identified archeological sites, of which thousands are unexcavated, are located in this region, which is home to some 100,000 years of civilization. The site of many Biblical and Koranic events, Iraq has long been a center of Christian and Islamic cultural development. Iraq has four UNESCO World Heritage sites and eleven provisional World Heritage sites.

What is at stake for Iraq?

Images of the Iraq Museum’s looting are still vivid in our collective memory. Between April 10th and 12th, 2003, the Iraq Museum was extensively looted. A brutal event, photos of the broken display cases, empty galleries, and a disarray of objects shocked the world. The Iraq National Library and Archives and the Iraq Modern Art Museum as well as numerous recorded and unrecorded archeological sites were also looted. Thousands of objects were stolen from sites like Adab, Umm al-Aqarib, Isin, Larsa, Nippur, Zabalam, Shuruppak, and Umm al-Hafriyat.

Even with the end of the war, the unstable political situation in Iraq is an impediment to stopping tomb raiders and looters. In Dhahir, hundreds of trenches dug across an expanse of desert reveal the looted sites where an uncountable loss of history has taken place. Other regions, including the southern provinces of Dhi Qar and Wasit as well as the site known as Dubrum (an ancient Sumerian settlement near the village of Saiyid Dhahir in Dhi Qar province), have been overrun with illegal excavations.

Iraq’s cultural heritage endangered

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Sunni Muslim extremist group that has declared itself the Islamic State, has gained control over the northwestern and western parts of Iraq, which contain approximately 4,000 cultural sites. Amongst them is the Assyrian capital Nineveh, located in Mosul city itself, where also many buildings of historical, cultural, and religious importance are concentrated. In January 2015, ISIS began bombing the ancient walls of Nineveh, causing irreparable damage to the ancient site. Shortly thereafter in March 2015, ISIS destroyed the Northwest Palace at Nimrud.

The most famous case of destruction of cultural heritage by ISIS was the brutal demolition of the tomb of Jonah, a prophet revered by Christians, Muslims, and Jews. On July 25th, 2014, the Nabi Younes Mosque, which contained the shrine, was destroyed using explosives. According to Dr. Abdulameer al-Hamdani of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, various Shia and Sufi shrines, such as the thirteenth-century shrine of Yahya Bin al-Qasim in Mosul, have been attacked, and even some Sunni shrines, such as the shrines of Sheikh Fathi, Ibn al-Atheer, and Sultan Abdullah Bin Asim, the grandson of Caliph Umar (or Ömer), have been bulldozed. In addition to these organized attacks, as Alex Nagel reports, many archeological sites are vulnerable to raids by individual looters because of the lack of staff and guards.

In addition, according to UNESCO, ISIS has made a large sum of money from sales of the stolen antiquities. These sales make up a significant part of the $875 million that the military group is reported to have accumulated. According to the GuardianISIS made $36 million just from the sale of artifacts from the Al-Nabuk area in the Qalamoun Mountains west of Damascus. But it is important to note that these figures are highly controversial and have not been verified, as Sam Hardy of “Conflict Antiquities” explains here.

The loss of buildings is irreversible. As most of the sales are clandestine, future repatriations of artifacts will be nearly impossible.

The exact extent of destruction of cultural sites by ISIS remains unclear. As the example of the shrine of Sayeda Zeinab illustrates, there is much confusion and little definitive evidence. What is clear, however, is that ISIS uses the images of destruction as propaganda.

Daily situation reports from the Institute for the Study of War describe major military activities throughout Iraq. The data from these reports highlights the widespread and persistent threat to numerous archeological and cultural heritage sites in the country. Currently, military activity is focused in the northern region of Iraq, home to several UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Market demand for Iraqi antiquities

Neil Brodie, Senior Research Fellow at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow, investigated the market demand for Iraqi antiquities and observed that the market for Iraqi antiquities boomed in the late 1980s and has continued to flourish.

In April 2003, sales of Iraqi artifacts without proper provenance was said to have stopped entirely. Those who claimed this stated that the looting of the Iraqi Museum made any sale of Iraqi objects look suspicious and immoral. The adoption of UNSCR 1483 in May 2003, which banned any trade of Iraqi antiquities that were reasonably suspected to have been illegally removed from Iraq, also caused sales numbers to plummet. But in reality, according to Simone Muehl, researcher at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich, many were sold with fake documents that claimed the objects as Syrian, for which restrictions were less strict.

In 2006 and 2008, Brodie conducted two internet surveys, which looked into the number of online websites that offered Iraqi antiquities for sale. He concluded that the market increased over the two years and that some of the objects that were traded could have possibly breached UNSCR 1483.

As can be seen by a quick search of major auction house websites, market demand for ancient Near Eastern antiquities is high. Sotheby’s regularly holds Arts of the Islamic World sales. A sale on April 9th, 2014, in London, brought in a total of £6,980,175. A year before that, a sale on April 23rd, 2013 brought in a total of £4,587,900. Christie’s also regularly holds Islamic art auctions. One on April 11th, 2014 was “Arts & Textiles of the Islamic and Indian Worlds,” which netted £1,318,813. Another similar sale in October 2014 featured “Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds” sold 308 lots for £1,323,938Perhaps the best illustration of the high market demand for ancient Near Eastern antiquities is the 2007 sale of the Guennol Lioness, a 5,000-year-old Mesopotamian statue that was sold for $57.2 million at Sotheby’s.

Although no one can say that the market demand for Islamic antiquities is the sole cause of lootings in the Middle East, the high prices that collectors and dealers are willing to pay is a considerable incentive for looters in Iraq.

What is Iraq doing to protect its cultural heritage?

In 1954, Iraq ratified the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and, in 1967, the Convention’s First Protocol, which addresses the protection and preservation of cultural and artistic works during armed conflict. Iraq also accepted the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property in 1973.

In 2002, it enacted Law No. 55 for the Iraq Antiquities and Heritage of Iraq. Article 12 states, “Any person who discovers or ever discovered an immovable antiquity, shall, within 24 hours, be committed to inform the nearest official authority, which in turn, shall immediately notify the Antiquity Authority.” Of even greater relevance is Article 22, which reads, “It is not allowed to, dedicate or sell any antiquity or heritage artifact or taking them out of Iraq, on the contrary, of the rules prescribed in this LAW.”

Dr. Donny George Youkhanna, an Iraqi Assyrian archeologist who passed away in 2011, marshaled international efforts to protect the Iraq Museum before and after the devastating looting in April 2003. Dr. Donny George and his colleagues at the Iraq Museum fought against the museum raiders with courage and brilliance and reached out to the local community to retrieve the objects as well as to international law enforcers for repatriation.

Before the war broke out, anticipating dangers to the National Museum, museum staff members took the precaution of removing most of the objects from the public galleries. The bulk of the collection was deposited in a secret vault whose location was not disclosed until the end of the war. Thanks to the foresight of the museum staff members, 8,366 pieces were rescued.

Some Iraqi civilians also worked to defend the collection. During the looting, two young Iraqi men took several items from the museum for safekeeping, including a statue of the Assyrian king Shalmanesser III and a relief made of bronze from the Sumerian Early Dynastic period. They subsequently returned these to Dr. Donny George and Jaber Khalil Ibrahim, President of the State Board of Antiquities.

Now, guards and military are positioned at well-known archeological sites, such as Samarra and Babylon, and buildings of historical and religious importance, where the state is in control of territory.

Efforts to protect Iraq’s cultural heritage

Since 2007, to commemorate the loss of cultural heritage during the Iraq Museum looting, SAFE has promoted the Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage. This campaign calls upon people to light virtual candles and share online their thoughts about cultural heritage protection. Virtual candles have been lit around the world, including in museums, universities, and chapels, to acknowledge that we are all responsible for the protection of cultural heritage.

In May 2003, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1483 was passed. It called upon all member states, regardless of whether they were parties to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, to help protect Iraq’s cultural heritage. Paragraph 7 states that the Security Council “decides that all Member States shall take appropriate steps to facilitate the safe return to Iraqi institutions of Iraqi cultural property and other items of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific, and religious importance illegally removed from the Iraq Museum, the National Library, and other locations in Iraq since the adoption of Resolution 661 (1990) of 6 August 1990 . . . .”

More recently in July 2014, UNESCO established an Emergency Response Action Plan (ERAP) to address the current conflict’s negative impact on Iraq’s cultural heritage. ERAP is mainly an informational alert system, in which relevant parties (such as customs and police at border crossings, Interpol, and auction houses) will be alerted about the possibility of illicit trafficking of Iraqi cultural property. It also plans to provide trainings and technical assistance to Iraqi institutions about dealing with emergency situations.

The Carabinieri, the national military police of Italy, led the effort to protect archeological sites in Iraq as well as to recover looted artifacts. In a Lebanese newspaper interview, Dr. Donny George said, “The Italian Carabinieri (soldiers) are the only force that worked on this issue [looting] for a few months.” In late 2003, members of the Carabinieri sacrificed their lives guarding Nasiriyah sites in Iraq. The Carabinieri’s work in Iraq continued even after 2003, including training of Iraqi site guards. Furthermore, Italian troops provided funds for the restoration of the Nasiriyah Museum.

The International Council of Museums (ICOM) has created the “The Emergency Red List of Iraqi Antiquities at Risk,” which describes the types of artifacts most favored by the illegal antiquities market, allowing dealers, collectors, and customs officials to identify and detain objects that had been stolen from the Iraq Museum.

Founded in 2008, the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage (IICAH) based in the city of Erbil in Iraq trains professionals in museum management and archeology. In 2008, it received a two-year Targeted Development Program (TDP) from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and in 2011, it received additional funds for the education of Iraqi heritage conservation experts.

Iraq Heritage is an executive non-departmental public body that provides information about Iraqi heritage to academics and policy advisers, advises government and local authorities on heritage management, and encourages private sector to invest in heritage sites at risk.

SAFE believes that Iraq’s cultural heritage is something that everyone should cherish, regardless of religious beliefs, ethnicity, or country of origin. International aid and cooperation have helped cultural heritage protection to some extent, but Iraq must do more internally to prevent lootings and heritage destruction. Raising public awareness on this issue, inside and outside of Iraq, would be a step in the right direction.

U.S. efforts to protect Iraq’s cultural heritage

In May 2003, a month after the looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, U.S. Representatives Philip English (R-PA) and James Leach (R-IA) introduced a bill titled H.R. 2009 (later modified to be H.R. 3497), also known as the Iraq Cultural Heritage Protection Act. This bill aimed to impose import restrictions on Iraqi cultural materials that had been removed from Iraq without appropriate documentation. However, because of lobbying forces marshaled by the art market community and other interested parties, this bill was not enacted. It was replaced by a different bill, S. 1291, which later became the Emergency Protection for Iraqi Cultural Antiquities Act of 2004 (title III of Pub. L. 108-429). This act authorizes the President to impose restrictions to prevent the import of materials illegally removed from Iraq. (See Patty Gerstenblith and Katharyn Hanson, “Congressional Responses to the Looting of Iraq’s Cultural Property,” in Antiquities Under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection After the Iraq War, Lawrence Rothfield, ed, Rowman Altamira, 2008.)

Pursuant to the Act, on April 30, 2008, the Customs and Border Protection regulations were amended with a rule on Import Restrictions Imposed on Archaeological and Ethnological Material of Iraq. It restricts importation of stolen or illegally exported artifacts from Iraq and provides a list of designated object types that are restricted. These include, but are not limited to, objects of ceramic, stone, metal, glass, ivory, bone, shell, stucco, textile, paper, parchment, leather, and wood, and painting.

Also in 2008, the Strategic Framework Agreement for a Relationship of Friendship and Cooperation between the United States of America and the Republic of Iraq was developed to guide the overall political, economic, and cultural relationship between the U.S. and Iraq. Section IV, paragraph 6, states that “the Parties agree to cooperate to . . . promote Iraqi efforts and contributions to preserve Iraqi cultural heritage and protect archaeological antiquities, rehabilitate Iraqi museums, and assist Iraq in recovering and restoring its smuggled artifacts through projects such as the Future Babylon Project, and measures taken pursuant to the U.S. Emergency Protection for Iraqi Cultural Antiquities Act of 2004.”

The U.S. Department of State has maintained various projects and initiatives to protect, preserve, and display the cultural heritage of Iraq. From 2008 to 2011, the Iraq Cultural Heritage Initiative focused on the restoration of the Iraq Museum, providing the financing and human resources needed to reinforce the museum’s infrastructure. Diane Siebrandt, the former Cultural Heritage Liaison Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, commented, “It’s evident that the museum staff has made significant progress since returning to work in August 2007. Exhibit halls have been cleaned and the physical upgrades our project provides will allow the artifacts to be showcased once again and eventually enjoyed by visitors.” The Department of State has also funded other projects, such as the Future of Babylon Project and the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP).

What our partners at SAFE are doing to protect Iraq’s cultural heritage

 SAFE was founded in response to the April 2003 looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. Its first project was an advocacy campaign for the Iraq Cultural Heritage Protection Act, H.R. 2009, and the revised H.R. 3497. This legislation aimed to provide for the recovery, restitution, and protection of Iraqi cultural antiquities, to ultimately prohibit the importation into the United States of any archeological or cultural material removed from Iraq without appropriate documentation.

In order to raise awareness and support for this bill, SAFE created a poster and encouraged students from across the country joined SAFE in a Poster Hanging Day campaign on September 29, 2003. Professors, department heads, and students posted copies of SAFE’s H.R. 2009 poster in hallways, bookstores, cafeterias, bulletin boards, and wherever the public could see them. At the same time, postcards were also distributed to art galleries, bookstores, and at college campuses across the United States.

When a revised version of H.R. 2009 was introduced–H.R. 3497–SAFE revised the poster and created a new brochure that rallied support for the legislation. On February 20, 2004, 500 brochures were distributed at the College Art Association’s Special Advocacy Session, Cultural Heritage in Time of War in Seattle, Washington.

In 2007, SAFE started its Global Candlelight Vigil campaign, which urged people to light virtual candles in commemoration of the loss from looting of the Iraq Museum. It was later in 2013, that it was renamed to be the Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage, in memory of the former director of the Iraq Museum and his heroic deeds.

SAFE has organized and sponsored lectures and presentations, including a lecture in 2005 by Professor Elizabeth Simpson on the state of Iraqi archeological sites and the trade in stolen antiquities; a lecture and book signing by Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, author of Thieves of Baghdad, in 2006; and a lecture by Dr. Donny George at the Bancroft School in 2008.

In 2013, SAFE participated in the Oriental Institute Museum of the University of Chicago’s special exhibition, titled “Catastrophe! Ten Years Later: The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past.”

Cite this page as: SAFE (Saving Antiquities for Everyone), "Cultural heritage at risk: Iraq," in Smarthistory, January 30, 2018, accessed June 15, 2024,